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Introducing the Tyne Tees Bird Study Group to Thermal Imaging

The Tyne Tees Bird Study Group brings together a collective of passionate field ornithologists from all backgrounds to study and conserve birds, wildlife, and habitats in the region.

The group is based in North East England where a team of specialist field ornithologists are coordinated by Steve Evans in Durham.

Recently, through bespoke surveys and social media, Steve has been introduced to the West Midlands Ringing Group — a group of experienced bird ringers that we are fortunate to work with, providing thermal imaging devices to enhance their detection capabilities and aid their efforts during surveys — who have demonstrated the benefits of Pulsar thermal imaging devices when it comes to bird surveys and conservation.

We provided the Tyne Tees team with the Pulsar Axion 2 LRF XG35 thermal imaging monocular — a compact and lightweight device that is small enough to fit in a pack or even a pocket when not in use, and which features an extremely sensitive thermal sensor capable of revealing even the smallest temperature difference through dense foliage — to aid in their surveyance and conservation efforts. We caught up with Steve to find out how he and the team got on.

How the Group Uses Thermal Imaging Devices

Putting these thermal imaging devices in the team’s hands has allowed them to study elusive bird species that had, until now, remained seldom seen with very little known about them; species such as the tiny Jack Snipe (a wading bird that comes to the UK to escape harsh Russian winters) , which is — even in 2024 — a candidate for Britain’s Least Known bird, along with the shy and skittish reedbed-dwelling Water Rail and the cryptic Woodcock — which the group study year round, allowing nesting data to be recorded.

Steve tells us: “The use of Pulsar Thermal Cameras is revolutionary, they are absolute game-changers. Two of our team now own Pulsar [devices] which can be used to locate birds both [during the] day and at night”.

Thermal imaging has also provided a peek into the private lives of the Long-eared Owls that the group regularly encounter during night-time surveys, allowing for roost counts as birds leave at dusk and enabling data collection which is then shared with the Hawk & Owl Trust’s National Survey. Providing an insight into a world that often remains hidden, thermal imaging has even allowed the team to spot a local Harvest Mouse for the first time in 50 years, much to the delight of the local mammal recorder.

Enhancing the Group’s Detection Capabilities

Using the thermal imaging monocular, the group’s detection capabilities are now significantly enhanced during both day- and night-time observations, and the time it takes to carry out surveys has been drastically reduced. Since October 2023, aided by this powerful monocular, the group has managed to locate 470 Jack Snipe (a candidate for Britain’s least-known bird) during daytime surveys at over 100 observation locations. This current study is the most intensive fieldwork undertaken by the team and has allowed them to amass vast quantities of data about Jack Snipe distribution and movement, and, according to Steve, the thermal device was an integral resource during their survey. Using the thermal spotter, they were able to pinpoint the birds’ whereabouts, so that, when it comes to data sharing, they can be taken into consideration, planned for, and conserved.

Left: Jack Snipe hidden in a marsh. This photo is taken without a zoom lens; the Jack Snipe’s total confidence in its cryptic plumage allows Steve to get this close with his camera. Right: The Jack Snipe is spotted through the Pulsar Axion 2 LRF XG35 thermal imaging monocular.

Using Thermal Imaging to Estimate the National Woodcock Population

One of the most impressive aspects of the group’s use of the Axion 2 LRF XG35 has been in their regional Woodcock Survey work, undertaken to complement the 2023 BTO/GWCT National Roding survey. Roding is a display male Woodcock use to find a mate — in which they fly in straight lines above their territory at dusk, emitting a grunting call — and it is the most reliable way in which to identify Woodcock during the breeding season. The National Roding Survey, undertaken every ten years, is used to calculate the estimated national population size of Woodcock.

Using the Pulsar units, members of the Tyne Tees Bird Study Group could see much closer into the bird’s habitats and locate the notoriously difficult-to-find nesting birds from March (before the National Survey even started) all the way through to August (after the National Survey had ended), with young chicks in early September radically reappraising what was known about the Woodcock’s breeding season and revealing that there has been no change to the breeding range in the region for the last 30 years — an observation which Steve informs us is totally at odds with known national trends.

Going Forward with Thermal Imaging

Speaking with Steve about where he sees thermal imaging being used in the group’s activities going forward, he tells us that, with the Winter months ahead, they will busy themselves with observation and surveyance of Jack Snipe, Owls, and Woodcock. After this, once Spring arrives, they will turn their attention to monitoring the occupancy of nest boxes for Kestrel, Barn Owl, and more, as well as surveying breeding birds to locate nests for citizen science surveys and other projects.

He finishes by saying: “The Pulsar Axion 2 LRF XG35 is an excellent tool for any bird- or wildlife watcher, regardless of their experience. It is compact and lightweight, easily fitting in a pocket or slotting into its neat carry case.  It is a real gamechanger, even for those of us who have studied birds in low light, at dusk, or at night for decades. These devices will certainly increase your enjoyment and productivity in the field.”

You can see how Steve uses the Pulsar Axion 2 LRF XG35 by following him on X (formerly Twitter) at @HalfSnipe, where he posts frequent updates using thermal imaging devices to help with his ornithological activities. Plus, you can see the West Midlands Ringing Group’s work in action on Facebook, X, Instagram, and YouTube.

How Does It Work?

Now that you’ve read about how the team at Tyne Tees Bird Study Group uses thermal to enhance their studies and surveys, you may be wondering how thermal actually works.

So, in a nutshell: All objects emit infrared energy as heat; the temperature of the ground, plants, and other terrain, for example, will mostly remain the same temperature as the air, whereas animals and humans emit more heat, and it is by detecting the very subtle temperature differences of everything within the device’s field of view that Pulsar thermal imaging devices are able to reveal what would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. To put it simply, the device’s germanium lens will detect the naturally emitting electromagnetic waves of an object and the thermal sensor will convert these waves into a visual representation of the scene in front of you, presenting it clearly onto a high-resolution viewfinder. Even in challenging weather conditions or complete darkness, thermal imaging gives the user the ability to see the unseen.

You can find out more about the Axion 2 LRF XG35 mentioned in this article here.

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